WHAT WAS IT LIKE IN THE OLDEN DAYS
This is the story of waterfowling from the graphic pen of T.S. Van Dyke, as he tells it in various Forest and Stream articles, who had the art of seeing things as they were. It is a story of the last days of the muzzleloading shotgun when he spent the fall of 1864 on the Illinois River, just below the foot of Senachwine Lake, still celebrated far and wide as a ducking ground. From this, one may imagine what it was like nearly 157 years ago waterfowling in the wild rice fields and flooded timber along the Illinois River—the center of a movement of waterfowl absolutely paralyzing to anyone who had never/has never seen such and will never see such again. It was a time when ducks bred here. It was a time when the plumage hunters had not yet arrived or before many trains had penetrated the countryside and before automatics and pumps and cars.
So far as I have seen, ascertain, or can learn, we have never had anything equal to the old time flights of the prairie state of Illinois when great quacking hordes that had been out feeding on the great cornfields or stubbles of the prairies came in to some favorite pond, lake, slough or timber hole, while the great traveling migrating host on high sent down its myriads of hissing wings to keep them company, all making one’s nerves tremble. It was a sight for the Red Gods, a sight that shook even the steadiest nerves trained on waterfowling, a sight that paralyzed even the old duck shooters from the Atlantic and Pacific shores, used to shots at long range with a heavy gun. It is now a thing of the past, and its riotous uproar around one’s ears in the long ago as the shades of night closed in is now among the things that were. Yet it was once so certain on most of autumn and spring days that sportsmen often reserved all their fire for just the evening flight and let all but the choicest overhead shots go during the day. A half an hour of that was worth all the rest of the day no matter how good the other flights were during the day, for the abundance and action never showed elsewhere as when thousands of curling and hissing wings that wound about one’s head from every quarter of the horizon as well as from the upper sky appeared before one’s eyes. Here are some excerpts from his story of the yesteryears:
It was a bright September afternoon, the day after my arrival at Henry, that my friend and I were paddling up the crooked slough that leads from Senachwine to the Illinois River. Wood Ducks, Mallards and Teal rose squealing and quacking from the slough. When we reached Mud Lake—a mere widening and branching of the slough at the foot of Senachwine—we drew the boat ashore. Huge flocks of Mallards rose with reverberating wings from the sloughs all around us.
There were already in sight what seemed to me enough ducks to satisfy anyone. Long lines of black dots streamed along the blue sky above Senachwine, up the Illinois and over Swan Lake—between the river and Senachwine—while from down the slough, up the slough, from over the timber on the west, and the timber along the river on the east, came small bunches and single birds by the dozen. There was scarcely a minute to wait for a shot. The number of ducks increased by the minute. They came with swifter and steadier wing and with more of an air of business than they had shown before. Those hitherto flying were nearly all ducks that had been spending the day in and around Senachwine and its adjacent ponds and sloughs. But now the host that during the day had been feeding in the great corn fields of the prairie began to move in to roost, and the vast army of traveling wildfowl that the late sharp frosts in the North had started on their southern tour began to get under way. Long lines came streaming down from the northern sky, widening out and descending in long inclines or long sweeping curves. Dense bunches came rising out of the horizon, hanging for a moment on the glowing sky, then massing and bearing directly down upon us.
No longer as singles, but in battalions, they poured over the bluffs on the west, where the land sweeps away into the vast expanse of high prairie, and on wings swifter than the wind itself came riding down the last beams of the sinking sun. Above them, the air was dotted with long wedge-shaped masses or converging strings, more slowly moving than the ducks, from which I could soon hear the deep, mellow honk of the goose and the clamorous cackle of the brant. And through all this were darting here and there and everywhere, ducks, single, in pairs, and small bunches. English snipe were pitching about in their erratic flight; golden plover drifted by with their tender whistle, little alarmed by the cannonade; Blue herons, Bitterns and Snowy Egrets, with long necks doubled up and legs outstretched behind, flapped solemnly across the stage, while Yellowlegs, Sand Snipe, Mud hens, Divers made their appearance.
Hitherto the ducks had all come from the level of the horizon. But now, from on high, with rushing, tearing sound, as if rending in their passage the canopy of Heaven, down they came out of the very face of night. With wings set in rigid curves, dense masses of Bluebills came winding swiftly down. Mallards, too, no longer with heavy beat, but with stiffened wings that made it hiss beneath them, rode down the darkening air. Sprigtails and other large ducks came sliding down on long inclines with firmly set wings that made all sing beneath them. Blue-winged Teal came swiftly and straight as the flight of a falling arrow, while Greenwings shot by in volleys or pounced upon the scene with the rush of a hungry hawk. In untold numbers, the old Gray geese, too, came trooping in, though few came near enough to give us a fair shot.
Nearly all of them steered high along the sky until over Senachwine Lake, or Swan Lake—a little below us to the northwest—then, lengthening out their dark strings, they descended slowly and softly in long spiral curves to the bosom of the lake. Brant, too dotted the western and northern skies, marching along with swifter stroke of wing and more clamorous throats, until over the water’s edge, then slowly sailing and lowering for a few hundred feet in solemn silence, suddenly resumed their cackle, and, like a thousand shingles tossed from a balloon, went whirling, pitching, tumbling and gyrating down to the middle of the lake.
Far, far above all these, and still bathed in the crimson glow of the fallen sun, long lines of Sandhills floated like flocks of down in their southward flight, not deigning to alight, but down through a mile of air sending their greetings. Myriads of ducks and geese, traveling from the North, swept by, far overhead, without slackening a wing. Far above us, the Mallard’s neck and head, looking fairly black in the falling night, could be seen outstretched for another hundred miles before dark. Darkly painted on the crimson sky, the Sprigtails streamed along with forked rudders set for a warmer region than Senachwine. Widgeon sent down a plaintive whistle that plainly said “good-bye.” Bluebills, Wood Ducks, Spoonbills and Teal sped along the upper sky with scarcely a glance at their brethren who chose to descend among them. And far over all, with swifter flight and more rapid stroke of wing than I had deemed possible for birds so large, a flock of Swans thickened the sky, as if intending to sup in Kentucky instead of Illinois.
Shall I ever forget that big Mallard that bore down upon me before I was fairly hidden in the reeds? As he passed me at about twenty-five yards, I saw, along the iron rib of the gun, the sunlight glisten on his burnished head. The duck rose skyward with thumping wings, leaving me so benumbed with wonder that I never thought of the other barrel. I concluded to retire from the business of single shots and go into the wholesale trade. This conclusion was firmly braced by the arrival of fifteen or twenty Mallards in a well massed block. They came past me like a charge of cavalry, sweeping in bright uniform low along the water, with shining necks and heads projecting like couched lances. I could see four or five heads almost in line as I pulled the first trigger, yet only one dropped, and that one with only a broken wing. As they rose with obstreperous beat of wing, I rained the second barrel into the thickest part of the climbing mass, and another one fell with broken wing, while another wabbled and wavered for a hundred yards or more, then rose high and hung in air for a second, then, folding his wings, descended into a heavy mass of reeds away on the other side of the main slough. Meanwhile, my two wounded ducks, both flattened out on the water, were making rapid time for the thick reeds across the little slough, and both disappeared in them just as I got one barrel of my gun capped. So it went on for an hour or so. There was scarcely a minute to wait for a shot, yet in that hour I bagged only four or five ducks.
With an empty powder flask as I laid the gun upon a muskrat house, and sat down upon the top of it, the whole world where I had been living vanished in a twinkling and I found myself in another sphere, filled with circling spirits, all endowed with emotions, hopes and fears, like those that Dante saw in Paradise. There, indeed, was the great sea of being, but all one vast whirlpool that engulfed the soul of the poor powderless “tenderfoot,” while his ears were stunned with the whizz and rush of wings all around his head, with the thump and bustle and splash of ducks alighting in the water before him, the squeal of Wood Ducks, the quack of Mallards, the whistle of Widgeon, the scape of traveling snipe, the grating squawk of Herons, Egrets and Bitterns, the honk-honk of Geese, the clank-a-lank of Brant, and the dolorous grrrroooo of the far off Sandhill Crane.